Treason to whiteness is loyalty to summer
Has anyone ever listened to the song “The Boys of Summer” and thought, ok that’s all fine and good Don but don’t you think you’ve unfairly excluded the perspective of the titular boys here? Probably not. No one wants to be the boys of summer — they are supposed to fulfill a background role. In the self’s psychodrama, we want to see ourselves as Don Henley on the beach, or Lorde in a cute yellow dress on the beach; the two genders. Of course this creates a predicament, wherein everyone is simultaneously a Don/Lorde and one of the anon boys to another’s hot world summer.1 But what if someone chose to identify with exclusion, with being someone who is merely a visitor on the shores of decadence? To say “what makes me special is my non-specialness.”
Out on the road the other day, I heard a Morgan Wallen song, “Sand In My Boots,” and suddenly I realized that he is this person, or he sings for him — a proud boy of summer. The song is sort of like “Boys of Summer” in that it features a beach and a girl who was there but is now gone and all the melancholy of a fling cut short. The difference is that Wallen leaves the beach — in a beat-up Chevy, headed for the backroads. He’s a visitor and it’s implied the girl is not. As the first line states: “She asked me where I was from.” And then the second: “Somewhere you never been to.” Don, on the elite tier of heartbreak, is probably driving around his 3rd home in Monterey, or his 5th in, idk, Corona Del Mar. He is feeling right at home but, you know, sad.
Which is all to say, the prominent feature of Wallen’s song is class difference, is what gives the song its structure of yearning. When it mentions her flip-flops next to his Red Wings, you are invited to participate in the long project of constructing the appearance of class as an identity. He is a worker, you are expected to know, because he wears steel-toed boots to the beach. But not just any kind of worker, because what’s the other appearance that country music can’t avoid conjuring? When you begin to consider the wealth of songs about beach party-goers who presumably return home to their humble hollows, the claim coheres: the boys of summer are the white proletariat. Fair enough.
Class colors everything, but a certain kind of upbeat country music seems to want to obfuscate class’s tendency to, well, struggle. It says, sure we’re different, but we all throw down at the same beach, maybe we even drink the same drinks. This typology of country song, you could call it I’m On A Boat music, focuses on the good times with country realness as the stylistic frame. What’s interesting about Wallen’s recent album, though, is that he abandons the bodies of water right after he heads home from the one in “Sand In My Boots.” Instead, he directs attention to where he’s headed: the small town, that antediluvian figure that haunts not only country music but also the American imagination.
Once again, the appearance of white proletarian life is constructed in advance; it is drawn up — through a million songs, movies, and NYT articles — as taking place in a small town. To say it’s an appearance is to say that by no means is this the whole truth. In reality, there are wealthy nobility living in small towns and there are white proletarians living in housing tracts that do not at all resemble the small town that John Cougar is singing about. It would be a mistake, though, to disregard such a trope under the guise of self-assured realism, to dismiss wisps of appearance as mere mirages. Look no further than the great white migration that followed the Dust Bowl if you want to understand the durability of the spiritual and material bond between country music and small town, working class pride. Those that fled the prairies settled throughout the West, and the subsequent flood of cash into war industries helped lift some of those same Okies and Arkies out of poverty.2 There are a hundred stories like this one — sequences of abject poverty and brief prosperity; almost all concern a deep attachment to land and labor, most typically of the mining or agricultural kind. In fact, the artist of interest calls a town in Hancock County, TN home — a region that falls within the once coal-rich Central Appalachian coalfield, and is today one of several federally defined “persistent poverty counties.” So when Wallen sings about looking up at the stars from down in the hollow, he is also singing a history of white destitution and white settlement.
Whiteness, of course, is not something that gets solved by class but rather is further troubled by it. Particularly in our era — when the privileges that whiteness ostensibly confers are less of a guarantee — racial hierarchies don’t just lay down and die but instead go into overdrive. Throughout the Rust Belt and the hollowed out coal fields, in the absence of factories that once organized life, right-wing militias quietly enter the fray. There is almost certainly a meetup in your city that caters to disenchanted young white men. Now is the time of pale monsters, to be sure.
This disturbance in the racial hierarchy, a matter of a dramatic class recomposition spanning several decades, inevitably shapes a whole generation’s desires — what fills them with angst, with repressed intensity. Songs come along that channel such lived life. You can hear it in various places on the album, but nowhere clearer than Track 1 Side 2, “Still Goin Down." The song is easily received as a mise-en-scène familiar to country party songs, but there’s a dissonance probing the surface of the dusty guitars and yawning pedal steel. Things start to pick up and he gives backwoods Bacchic vignettes of girls dancing in cut-off shorts and big trucks and moonshine and this is all expected, except an off harmony makes it a little strangely sad for a party scene. Then the close of the chorus, through his clenched jaw delivery —“Call it cliché, but hey, just take it from me / It’s still goin’ down out in the country” — and it’s impossible to hear this self-recognition amidst the strangely sad party chorus and not hear an immense bitterness. One imagines whoever he’s addressing does not wear denim, but Italian suits, that he reaches his white sand beaches by way of a Learjet rather than a sunburnt Silverado.
Once you hear this, songs like “More Than My Hometown” and “Livin’ the Dream” take on a new clarity. What he’s saying, or reflecting on, essentially, is this: Wallen loves his hometown, more than he loves his lovers. But like them, the real world spins him; the centrifugal force that is called The Marketplace flings him out of Eastern Tennessee where opportunity is nil3 to Nashville where he lucked out; he is now a bona fide country star. But as he explains on the latter track, the “alcohol and women and Adderall and adrenaline” don’t make for much of a promised land. For a boy of summer, the only thing that’s promised is that you’ll go home. It’s all Wallen wants.
This inability to return — spiritually, materially — gives the album its aura of a repression that’s aching and threatening to burst. Though, for an album called Dangerous, the content here is mostly inoffensive. He’s certainly no Toby Keith, or Hank Jr. If Wallen’s music is a portent of the structure of whiteness in the present era, it’s because it’s so inconclusive, often confused. It’s simultaneously hypermasculine yet soft in its stylings; it struts a strong skepticism toward bourgeois decadence that’s counterposed with nostalgia for small-town life. He embodies the not-so-dormant, always-threatening-to-emerge forces of white reaction, which many are increasingly and rightly vigilant about. This vigilance helps explain the volume of outcry that occurred when Wallen was caught being racist.4 People look at Wallen, the way he and his cohort dresses, and they rightly see what Mark Greif described as “nostalgia for suburban whiteness.” He’s a country singer who is uncomfortable with celebrity and so sings incessantly about the desire to go back. But we aren’t Henley rich, he says to himself as he puts on his costume of white working class authenticity. Defiantly, he says look back, you can look back!
And this is ultimately what Wallen represents — the desire to return. Listen to the latent resentment in songs like “Still Goin Down” and you will also hear the longing for a return to a fabled un-alienated agrarian life. On its own, the mode is one that imagines a life freed from the dominating structures of wage labor, the state, and the depersonalizing effects of the city (read: music-biz stardom). In reality, such a lifestyle has never been further from possibility. Today, one’s chances of survival depend more than ever on access to a wage, and, increasingly, access is limited not only for racialized workers who have historically been first to be shut out, but white workers as well. Such a crisis is an occasion for whiteness to rev its engines, to use everything at its disposal to make sure workers show up to work, that property remains such, and that the racial hierarchy is upheld. At the same time, it’s an opportunity for new solidarities, ones that disrupt the fantasies and racial divisions that Morgan Wallen’s music plays a minuscule part in reproducing. If they occur, perhaps they will birth a new music. Its partisans won’t meet on the beach or in the backcountry, but in the streets.
“Everybody can’t be on top / But life it ain’t real funky / Unless it’s got that pop” -TAFKAP
This also answers the question posed, however snobbily and oversaturated with self-satisfied Liberal condescension, by this standup routine. It’s truly awful, so, caveat emptor.
A cursory search of keywords ‘distressed’ or ‘Hancock’ on the Tennessee state government website brings up countless briefings on prescription drug addiction programs, projects to restore drinking water to safe levels, and pie in the sky economic recovery programs that go back years, insisting that they’ve finally found the key to bringing tourists and their cash into Sneedville, TN.
The unremarked element in that episode was what came before: the sequence of the George Floyd Uprising of the summer prior, followed by the J6 Capitol riot. The latter — a moment of collective whiteness in physical motion if there ever was one — occurred a literal two days before Wallen’s album was released, and despite the swift action taken to remove Wallen’s music from airplay after the incident in February, his already #1-charting album continued to sell even better, as if to say to everyone radicalized by summer 2020, “Watch out — some of us still love racism!”
And to give an idea of what kind of consensus there was, the album was the first to spend 9 weeks at #1 since Drake did the same in 2016; it was also only one of four country albums in Billboard history to spend that amount of time at #1, sharing the company with Garth, Billy Ray, and Taylor.